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The Contamination of Fillmore County
By Laurel Druley, Minnesota Public Radio
May 29, 2001

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Some people in Fillmore County haven't been able to drink their water for almost 20 years. The sinkhole-prone area is vulnerable to pollution and that has many geologists and local officials concerned.

Some 50 years ago, Amoco built a petroleum storage facility. In the years since, a karst aquifer near the facility - now owned by BP Amoco - has become completely contaminated.
DAVE APPLEN AND HIS FAMILY stopped drinking their tap water from their private well 15 years ago, when he learned his water's nitrate level was above the state drinking standard. Ever since, he's hauled water from his parents' tap in Harmony. Applen says he tries not to think about bathing in the well water. On a rare occasion, he'll take a sip from the hose while working outside.

"I'd be thirsty and take a drink of it. It tastes good. It's cold. It's kind of like playing Russian roulette. How many people got sick? Who knows? How do you relate it?" Applen says.

A lot of his neighbors have similar questions about their water. Applen guesses more than 25 aren't drinking the water either. In addition to finding too many nitrates in their wells, some Fillmore County residents have discovered E. coli, fecal coliform bacteria and oil products.

Officials at the Minnesota Department of Health say drinking excessive amounts of these contaminants can cause adverse health effects, including blue baby syndrome; liver, kidney and circulatory problems and cancer.

Geologists and state officials blame the area's karst geology. The landscape is pocked with cracked limestone formations, characterized by sinkholes, ravines and underground streams. Karst can allow rapid transmission of pollution from the land surface to ground water.

Fillmore County has more sinkholes than any other part of the state.

"In this part of the world, the line between ground water and surface water is very blurry, "says Jeff Green, a geologist for the Department of Natural Resources, who has done several dye tests to see where and how fast the water moves. "I could take you to places today while it's raining and watch it fall out of the sky, run across the landscape and sink underground, and 10 hours later come out of the spring then sink back underground and become ground water again. "When you do that and you've got bacteria sinking into that ground water, you've got concerns, and it is a big issue."

Southeastern Minnesota is heavily farmed. Late last year a proposed multi-million gallon manure basin was put on hold when a Fillmore County judge ruled the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency needed to do more environmental impact testing.

See the Minnesota Department of Health Web site for information on testing and protecting wells.
Many residents, including Dave Applen, were appalled at the idea. Fecal bacteria from the manure, spread on farms and malfunctioning septic systems, is already found in the ground water.

Calvin Alexander, a geology professor at the University of Minnesota, who has studied karst extensively, says one-quarter to one-third of all private wells in Fillmore County have nitrates above standard and another third contain bacteria. Another concern is petroleum by-products.

Some 50 years ago, Amoco built a petroleum storage facility. In the year since, a karst aquifer near the facility - now owned by BP Amoco - has become completely contaminated. Some, but not all, old and shallow wells are at risk.

Recently, BP Amoco replaced two neighbors' wells and one of its own after finding low-level pollution in the water. A new well costs about $15,000. Today the DNR's Jeff Green says most chemical companies are much more careful about checking local geology before building their facilities.

BP Amoco's Dan Larson, says the company and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency test the facility's neighbors' water regularly. The company also built dikes around the storage containers and raised pipes above ground to aid in leak detection.

"We operate the facilities so we don't have any spills and the product stays where it's supposed to be making sure tanks are intact," he says.

University of Minnesota karst expert Calvin Alexander says he knows of two major gas spills in Fillmore County. The gas pollution may not be getting any worse, but it isn't going away either. Fertilizer is still being spread on the fields, but local officials are asking farmers to use it sparingly. The residents of Fillmore County could dig deeper wells, but it's expensive, and many complain it doesn't taste good. So the people of Fillmore County have little choice in the near future but to continue drinking bottled water.